Monday, February 27, 2012

Livin' on the Edge

While eating lunch with a few colleagues recently, one asked about my next travel destination. I replied that I wasn't sure, since I had been planning a combined trip to Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan, but it had fallen through.  She responded, "Why, are those countries not dangerous enough for you?"  I guess my recent trips to Mali, Bosnia, Israel and Jordan give just cause for that way of thinking.  But even though I'd love owning a European passport to visit North Korea, I'm generally a type of person who savors living in a safe environment. That, however, is not always the case.

While walking out of a home in the town of Itapecerica da Serra, where I was living at the time, I glanced down at a newspaper lying on table just outside the front door. In my limited Portuguese, I had only been in Brazil for three months, I read the headline: 'Itapecerica da Serra, number one city for homicides in the state of Sao Paulo' and thought, "well, that's comforting."  We, my missionary companion and I, lived around the corner from a road called Rua Guatemala. It was that road which gave the city its acclaim. One Sunday morning as we were seated at our desks, we heard the sound of fireworks.  My Brazilian companion exclaimed "The drugs have arrived!" I, in my naivete, replied, "That's dumb of them. Why would they use fireworks?  Now the police know too." To which she responded, "No, no.  It's the police who distribute the drugs."  Again, I thought "well, that's comforting." 

Each time we visited church members living on Rua Guatemala, they would plead with us to not come again, even trying scare tactics such as: "8 people were killed on the street last night."  But we were not deterred.  Well, not until we left a teaching appointment on that road. For 30 minutes, as we sat on a bench in a kitchen, my companion spoke to a few 17-19 year old boys who stated were interested in knowing about our church.  My Portuguese was still so minimal that I had difficulties following along. Instead I spent the time leaning against the wall and zoning out. Once we stepped out of the house my companion made Speedy Gonzales look slow. "We are never going back on that street," she stated as we turned onto a different road.  Rushing to catch up I asked, "What? Why?"  She said a bunch of words that were unintelligible to me.  After she repeated herself a third time, I thought it best to pull out my dictionary.  It was then that I understood her reasoning.  Those boys wanted to kidnap me for ransom. I laughed and said, "They'd be sorely disappointed with the amount of money they'd receive."

Since then I've lived in more sheltered areas. And yes, despite its notorious reputation, Amsterdam is one of those places. Even after realizing it was only because I didn't understand Dutch that I deceptively believed Holland was the safest place in the world, I still felt secure on the streets. But every city has its creepers and, for some reason unknown to me, I tend to attract the best of them.

On my bike ride home yesterday, a man in sunglasses (the skies were cloudy and gray) pulled up in front of me.  I only took notice of him as we reached an intersection and he slowed down considerably. The light was green. Annoyed, I passed him and continued on my way. He soon caught up and again biked in front of me, occasionally glancing in my direction.  When he finally turned right, I internally rejoiced that I no longer had to deal with his horrible biking skills.

Ten minutes later he appeared in front of me. Alarms rang in my head.  The last time someone had turned another direction, and later reappeared in front of me, ended in a scenario which included a knife, pointed inches from my face. I decided then that if he was indeed following me, I would stop at the police station in route to my house. At the next intersection I watched as he glanced to his left.  He did a double take, looking a bit farther behind him to the left and then immediately turned his head and glanced to the right, in my direction, before looking ahead once more. When we resumed biking, I slowed my speed. He turned down a street (that I too would turn down) and I told myself I was just being paranoid.  But I still kept my distance.

It wasn't until he stopped at the side of the road, waited for me to pass, and then continued on his way that I became unnerved. I've had guys pull up beside me and strike up a conversation before, but never had a guy act like this. So I played it cool.. as cool as I could while going weak in the knees.  A scene ran through my mind:  me standing in the lobby of a police station for a few minutes and, if asked by an officer, stammering something about possibly being followed. I hoped beyond hope that I wouldn't have to make a fool of myself like that.

He lagged behind another few minutes before biking past me once more. I took it as my opportunity.  I stopped pedaling and coasted along.  I watched as continued his occasional glance; our distance growing farther apart. Once he was a block ahead of me, I stopped at a red light.  He glanced behind, hurriedly glanced again, and (I assume upon not seeing me) stopped and turned all the way around until he looked straight at me.

As the light turned green and a car drove through the intersection, blocking me from his view, I turned right and maneuvered my way through back streets and alleyways until I reached my house.

Now, it could have just been paranoia causing me to see more into the situation than what was actually there, but my instincts state otherwise.  Either way, I'm glad to have been spared from discovering whether or not I was right.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Home Sweet Home

It is coming on four years that I've lived in my little flat. It's hard for me to conceptualize the fact. I try saying the words aloud, but they end up rolling around on my tongue and jumble up, so I swallow them before they have a chance to come out.  I have spent four Springs, four Summers, four Autumns, and four Winters in my little abode. Each season of each year its personality shines through a bit more.

One day could find me sitting in front of a fan while texting a friend to see who's home feels more like hell; the inside temperatures soaring to 107 degrees (41.5 C).  Another season I could be wrapped up in all the blankets I own, trying to keep warm as the inside temperatures plummet to 60 degrees (16 C).  There are months when my house invites visitors- the four legged variety, which, consequently, keep me up at nights as they tap dance on my ceiling. Other times give way to smells emanating from the bathroom drainpipes, which I can not, nor would I want to identify.

Then, just when I'd think I have all of its idiosyncrasies figured out, it surprises me with another.  My home has found pleasure keeping me on my toes, or cowering under the covers worried that someone may have broken in, when the crash that woke me from my sleep actually came from a picture frame it no longer wanted on one of its walls.  It has played games, such as prohibiting me from completely turning the key in the door just to see how much I am willing to pay to enter. (The amount, in case you were wondering, is 70 Euros).  Then there are the times the entire building has joined in on the act.  Take the most recent occurrence, for example. The wooden door to the building thought it would be fun to suck up every last remaining drop of moisture in the country and, as the outside temperatures dropped below freezing, it expanded. It laughed, even amid its near destruction, as my neighbor struggled with it for minutes just to let me in, and a few days later it relished in triumph when, despite my best efforts, it wouldn't let me out - keeping me imprisoned in my own home.

But I've grown to love my little house which, over the four years, I've turned into a home.  Someday I'm sure I'll even miss its geriatric quirks ... even if that someday is when I'm as old as it is.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

outdoor speed skating

Keizersrace photo source 

Winter and I aren't friendly.  We never were.  It's a mutual destain.  I hate it and it obviously hates me, which leads me to hate it all the more, as vicious a cycle as that is.

Funny thing though, when sub-freezing temperatures appear, the Dutch start smiling.  Yes, smiling.  During a time when I fear I will have to chop off my extremities due to frostbite, they're happy. While I'm cursing the heavens for cursing me with bitter cold air, they're acting like it's no big deal.  As I suffer in a house that won't get any warmer than 63 degrees no matter what I do, teenage kids are biking to school in 9 degree temperatures without a hat on. Which, actually, makes me want to slap them upside the head. Who cares if I used to be one of them.  (In Wisconsin, as a kid. I wanted earmuffs. Instead my parents got me a boy's navy blue knit hat which my grandma adorned with three small back-stitched flowers on the front to feminize it. But, flowers or no flowers, I was NOT going to suffer the humiliation that would ensue with that thing on my head. ...I've smartened up since then, OK?)

Sometimes I get so bundled up outside, with my Nepalese hat and convertible mittens, long coat and thick heavy-duty scarf, that I'm sure I look like a homeless person. Add a few re-usable bags full of groceries in my hands and people start smiling at me in pity.  I bet if I'd pick a spot to sit down, those same people would give me money. But it's too cold to sit.  So I'll never really know.

The kicker is when I complain about the cold, it invariably leads to this overly excited response: "but Claire, just think! We might actually have the elfstedentocht this year!"*  I wish you could see the expression on their faces as they relate the possibility.  It makes me want to plaster a cheesy grin on my face and in mock excitement exclaim: "what joy!" But I don't.  Instead I respond in a gloomy, monotone voice that I have perfected in the 31 winters I've experienced in my life, "then why don't the freezing temperatures stay localized up north, while we have the decent, mild winter temperatures I deserve?"

If, like every year since 1997, the elfstedentocht is called off, my complaints of the cold will get a different response: agreement.  But unlike years past, this year a new rumor went flying around once news of a no-go elfstedentocht was announced, the Keizersrace was on.  Excitement started spreading.  Everyone who was anyone was going to show up on Saturday night at the Keizersgracht to watch the race that hadn't occurred in 15 years.

I had every intention of going, especially since the speed skating race was on a canal close to home.  But then I stepped outside during the day of the race to do some shopping and my toes froze. My nose got red. I began daydreaming about my 63 degree house. And when the time came for the races to begin, I couldn't bring myself to leave the confines of my home, no matter how great an experience it would have been to see it in person. Instead I watched the first ten minutes of it online... since that is as long as I would have watched it had I been there.

So go ahead, call me a wimp if you'd like.  It's a title I'm willing to live with.

Keizersrace photo source
*(The elfstedentocht, or eleven cities tour, is a 125 mile speed skating course held on a series of canals which connect between eleven cities in the northern provence of the Netherlands. It was last held in 1997, since the ice needs to be at least 6 inches thick throughout the entire course and it just hasn't been cold enough since then.  This is the first year that the elfstedentocht committee had gotten together and discussed the possibility, and teams of ice measurement people were sent out to test the thickness of the canals. And no, I'm not discounting the awesomeness of the race. But please remember the mutual hatred winter and I have).

Monday, February 6, 2012

Freezing-point depression

This winter was shaping up to be quite a mild one, staying around 50 degrees (10 Celsius) for weeks on end.  Even the daffodils started to appear.  I began to fall in love with Amsterdam all over again.

And then the gods laughed.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

eet smakelijk

Whenever people come to visit, they always ask where they can get some good authentic Dutch food. My response: "Is there such thing?"  Ask any Dutch person.  They'll agree. The words 'good' and 'food', in regards to Dutch cuisine, don't generally go together.  That may be the reason the Dutch colonized other countries... to dot their country with great Indonesian and Surinamese restaurants for variety.

But, then again, if you're up for some hearty, stick to your ribs sort of meal, there are a few places around town that I'm quick to suggest - along with the faster, snack bar variety foods. No need to note that all thoughts of dieting must go, for either route.

photo source

Restaurant Moeders is always the first place I suggest. With items such as stamppot, also known as hotchpotch, (a plate of potatoes mashed with another root vegetable topped with sausage, a meatball, and bacon), or hachee (stewed meat in a thick gravy, poured over mashed potatoes and a side of red cabbage with apples), the food is as traditional as traditional gets. Plus the vibe is awesome - walls covered with framed photos of mothers, mismatched china, and a small dining area to keep you warm during the bitter cold winter days.

For those who don't want such a heavy meal, I tell them about The Pancake Bakery. Dutch pancakes are quite different from their American counterparts. Pancakes here are large and thin, yet not crepe thin.  They're generally consumed for dinner and have things like full strips of bacon or apple slices magically baked in, in such a way that the batter does not cover them. But, for nothing else (if pancakes don't suit their fancy - or they want a yummy appetizer), the restaurant is good for their pea soup.  Although, I've yet to find the place for 'snert' - the Dutch version of thick pea soup... so thick, in fact, that a spoon shoved in the bowl of soup will stay in place when the bowl is turned upside down.

Now, on to snack food. First there's my favorite: Febo. It is the ultimate vending machine. With the flip of a wrist and a deposit of a coin, any heart-attack inducing indulgence is within arms reach.  My recommendation: the broodje rundvleeskroket (beef croquette sandwich). Just don't tell me what's really, truly, inside there. I'd like to continue thinking it is just beef in a thick gravy, thank you very much.

photo source
Another option is the Hema sausage, found at every Hema store location.  The Hema sausage is (somewhat like) the equivalent of a German bratwurst or an American hot dog - leaning more on the side of a hot dog, because a bratwurst is so much better.

Then there are the Vlaamse Frites (Flemish, meaning Belgian, Fries).  They technically may not be Dutch, but they've been integrated into the culture so well that you wouldn't know otherwise - that is, if the name didn't give it away. Ask any local and they'll say Vleminckx Sausmeesters is the only place to order the fries. No where else compares.  Although the tiny shop is hard to find, it is definitely worth the search.  And when eating Vlaamse Frites, don't ruin them with ketchup. Eat them like a local - with fritesaus (think glorified mayonnaise). Just prepare to get messy, because the fries are served in a paper cone, and the sauce is piled on top.

photo source
For the more daring, try the herring.  Raw, I might add. But not to fear, in order to mask the overpowering, gag-reflex inducing smell, the fish can come topped with a mound of chopped onions. Now doesn't that sound tasty?  The centuries old Dutch delicacy can be found in the many small free-standing kiosks located around the city. But please, bring a lot of breath-mints for dessert... or gum, or a toothbrush and toothpaste...

Speaking of dessert, no one can leave the Netherlands without having a slice of appeltart at Winkel 43. It is the quintessential Dutch dessert. Yes, there is a queue to order a slice of appeltart at Winkel 43 no matter what day of the year. Yes, there is also a possibility of having to sit outside to eat it, no matter what day of the year, if all the seats inside are occupied and the craving just can't wait. But it is worth the risk, because a slice of appeltart at any other location will never be as good.